Managing Fibromyalgia Through Diet and Lifestyle
Fibromyalgia is one of the most common chronic pain conditions. It feels like pain or tenderness that is sensitive to the touch, can happen just about anywhere throughout the body, and lasts days, weeks, months, or even longer. Fibromyalgia is considered to be a “pain regulation” or “neurosensory” disorder because people with fibromyalgia seem to experience more pain, at a higher intensity than others. It is thought that individuals with fibromyalgia may experience these symptoms because their brains have become more sensitive to pain. Fibromyalgia pain can come and go throughout the body in “flares” and is often accompanied by stiffness, fatigue, “fibro fog,” and mental health issues. Taking all of that into consideration, it's easy to understand that fibromyalgia can sometimes feel debilitating and cause a lot of distress.
Prevalence and Cause
So how common is fibromyalgia? In the United States, it’s estimated that up to 7.7 percent of women and 4.9 percent of men experience fibromyalgia. These rates are higher than in Europe or South America.
Researchers still don’t know exactly what causes fibromyalgia, but it does not seem to be the result of physical damage to the bones, joints, or muscles. The pain may be triggered and worsened by infections, injury, inflammation, or emotional stress. Fibromyalgia tends to occur in families, however, no specific genes have been identified yet that may predispose someone to this condition.
Common Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
We have touched on a few of these symptoms already but here is a more complete list of the many symptoms someone with fibromyalgia may experience:
Pain or tenderness in the muscles, soft tissues, and/or bones throughout the body (muscle pain, joint pain), including the arms, legs, head, chest, abdomen, back, and buttocks
Numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
Fatigue, inability to get a good night’s sleep, restless leg syndrome, feeling stiff upon waking up
“Fibro fog” (memory problems, confusion, inability to pay close attention or concentrate)
Headaches (migraines, tension headaches)
Pain in the face or jaw, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome
Increased sensitivity to light, odors, noise, and temperature
Gut issues (bloating, constipation, IBS, GERD, difficulty swallowing)
Painful menstrual periods
Overactive bladder, pelvic pain
The risk for developing fibromyalgia is higher in people who experience other conditions such as chronic back pain, lupus, polymyalgia rheumatica, spondyloarthritis, osteoarthritis, inflammatory myopathy, systemic inflammatory arthropathies, hypothyroidism, endometriosis, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). It is also possible to experience several of these at the same time. Fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose because there is no definitive test for it. However, your doctor will likely do a physical exam and medical tests to try to determine which of these symptoms you may be experiencing.
It is important to note that just because there is no definitive test to diagnose fibromyalgia, it is very much a real disease and research is still being conducted to try and better understand and treat it. If you or someone you know is struggling with fibromyalgia, there are several things that you can do to help alleviate the symptoms and reduce the impact it is having on your life.
Nutrition and Fibromyalgia
Eating a nutritious diet is highly recommended to help manage fibromyalgia. While the current scientific evidence does not point to one specific dietary strategy, a few studies have shown beneficial impacts from the following nutrition recommendations:
Replacing certain foods with healthier alternatives, such as replacing non-olive oil fats with olive oil.
Adequate vitamin D - associated with decreased fibromyalgia pain (low vitamin D levels can be corrected with proper supplementation)
Supplementation with Chlorella green algae, Coenzyme Q10, acetyl-L-carnitine, magnesium, iron, vitamins C and E, probiotics, and Nigella sativa (Black cumin) seed
Elimination diet tailored to fit your individual needs - examples include a low FODMAP diet, eliminating gluten, eliminating artificial sweeteners, etc.
The Mediterranean diet - associated with decreased fatigue and improved mood
This list is by no means all-inclusive and as always, it is important to remember that nutrition is individualized, especially medical nutrition therapy. If you or someone you know is struggling with fibromyalgia, reach out to a registered dietitian to help you approach these dietary changes in a way that works best for your unique needs.
Movement and Fibromyalgia
While there is no cure for fibromyalgia at this time, there are ways to manage the symptoms. Lifestyle factors, including self-care, play an important role in reducing the impacts fibromyalgia may have on your life. According to the American College of Rheumatology, “patient self-care is vital to improving symptoms and daily function. In concert with medical treatment, healthy lifestyle behaviors can reduce pain, increase sleep quality, lessen fatigue, and help you cope better with fibromyalgia.”
While more research is underway, movement is currently considered to be the most effective treatment for fibromyalgia. Cardio training can ease symptoms by helping with pain and improving sleep. Ideally, doing 30 minutes of cardio, three times each week, is recommended. Low-impact exercises like walking, biking, stretching, yoga, tai chi, and water-based exercises are also helpful. If regular movement is new for you or feels like a lot, simply start small and go slowly to create a routine that works for you. Movement does not have to be intense to be effective. Just as with nutrition, we all have individual physical activity needs so seek out guidance from a fitness expert if you are unsure about where to start.
Other Lifestyle Factors and Fibromyalgia
In addition to diet and movement, improving sleep patterns and sleep hygiene can also be helpful. Some examples of supportive sleep hygiene habits include going to bed and waking up around the same time each day and limiting stimulants, like caffeine, in the afternoon. Establishing a relaxing night-time routine, such as dimming the lights and avoiding screen time may also be beneficial. Additionally, controlling some of the elements in your bedroom, such as keeping it dark, quiet, and cool, can help you get a better night's rest.
Managing stress can also help relieve symptoms. If you have been reading our content for some time now, you know that we place a BIG emphasis on stress management, here at the Functional Kitchen. Why? Stress management is a key component of health - it can help reduce inflammation, decrease symptoms caused by several factors, improves digestion, and so much more. If you experience symptoms of fibromyalgia, some helpful stress management techniques can include:
Pacing yourself, balancing work and rest, taking breaks when necessary
Making time to actively relax each day
Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness
Having a supportive community/building connections through support groups, positive and encouraging friends and family members, etc.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (under the guidance of a licensed mental health provider) to help focus on how thoughts and behaviors affect pain and other symptoms
There is no one-size-fits-all approach and multiple interventions may be best to support your needs. If necessary, consider reaching out to your healthcare provider about prescription medications that can help with fibromyalgia.
Putting It All Together
Fibromyalgia is a complex condition characterized by chronic widespread pain. It is thought to result from the brain becoming more sensitive to pain signals. In addition to the pain, people with fibromyalgia also tend to experience difficulty sleeping and fatigue, stiffness, changing moods, and “fibro fog.”
The American College of Rheumatology recommends that you “look forward, not backward. Focus on what you need to do to get better, not what caused your illness.” Self-care, including nutrition, movement, and stress management, are the mainstays for improving symptoms of fibromyalgia.
If you are looking for relief from your fibromyalgia symptoms and need support in creating an achievable plan to ease your pain, fatigue, and stiffness, click here to schedule a complimentary call with one of our registered dietitians.
American College of Rheumatology. (2021, December). Fibromyalgia fast facts. https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Fibromyalgia
Bhargava, J. & Hurley, J. A. (2021, October 13). Fibromyalgia. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK540974/
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Mayo Clinic. (2020, February 18). Fibromyalgia pain: Options for coping. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fibromyalgia/in-depth/fibromyalgia-pain/ART-20047867?p=1
MedlinePlus. (2021, October 20). Fibromyalgia. https://medlineplus.gov/fibromyalgia.html
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016, May). Fibromyalgia: In depth. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/fibromyalgia-in-depth
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (2021, June). Fibromyalgia. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/fibromyalgia
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